Public lecture by Hermann Giliomee in honour of Richard Elphick given at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn, USA, May 4 2015

Nelson Mandela and the last Afrikaner leaders: Reconsiderations of the Apartheid Era


One of the key generalisations of political analysts and commentators is that a government based on an ethnic, racial or religious group does not give up power unless it is defeated militarily or has run out of money. A poll conducted in 1988 among whites in the Witwatersrand area, the biggest urban conglomeration, confirmed this.

It listed five political preferences for a new constitution. Only 3 per cent of the Afrikaners and 11 per cent of the white English-speakers endorsed the option of “A single mixed parliament with the majority in control.” [1] From the mid-1960s the government built up what was regarded as the most formidable defence force in Africa. But in the end white-ruled South Africa needed a political solution, not military victories.

The most important social fact of the apartheid period was the fourfold increase of the black population from just over 8 million to over 31 million. During this time the white population grew from two and a half million to a mere four and half million. Taking only the demographic factor into account the end of white supremacy was inevitable; yet there was no reason in 1990 to anticipate the sudden collapse of the government’s resolve to insist on power-sharing.

The need for a political solution was stressed by a remarkable article by the historian Arnold Toynbee that appeared in 1959 in the Optima, a journal published by Anglo American Corporation. At that time Toynbee was among the most cited historians in the world. In his twelve volume A Study of History he argued that the critically important factor in the rise and fall of 26 civilisations in world history was the success, or failure of creative minorities and perceptive leaders in responding to challenges. Although no longer much cited nowadays, Toynbee made a remarkably prescient forecast in the Optima article.

My article starts with Toynbee’s warning in the article about the consequences of a failure to adapt timeously to South Africa’s political challenge. It goes on to analyse the changing nature of the ANC’s challenge to white power in which Nelson Mandela played such an important role. The main questions that will be addressed will be: Why did the white government fail to engage the African National Congress when the economy was still vibrant and the political system quite stable? What missed opportunities were there? How could things have been different?

History’s warning

Toynbee’s Optima article was written against the background of the rapid decolonisation of Africa by the European colonial powers that had started two years before. He pointed out the contrast between the empires founded by the Spanish and the Portuguese on the continent of South America and the British and Dutch in Africa. The Spanish, for instance, also exploited the native peoples, but here the division between first-class and second-class citizens did not follow racial lines, and barriers to the top were not racial, and hence not impermeable. The result was continued Spanish predominance even after independence. So too the people of European descent (or predominantly European descent) in the former Portuguese colony of Brazil.

In stark contrast stood the colonies that the Dutch and the British founded in Africa (and one could add the British in North America). Upward mobility for subordinate races was difficult and intermarriage virtually ruled out. He pointedly observed that in South Africa of the 1950s there was no easy way of entry into the dominant caste for an able and adaptable black person.[2]

Toynbee stressed the importance of demography. If the dominant minority was ahead in technology and culture, the struggle would be more drawn out and more morally complex than in the case of a clear-cut military struggle. But, he wrote, ‘the dénouement may be more tragic’. Sooner or later, Toynbee stated, ruling minorities had to accept the status of ‘an unprivileged minority’ living under a majority they consider culturally inferior. The alternative was to hold on to their present supremacy by sheer force against a rising tide of revolt.

Toynbee warned that holding on against the tide was fatal for a minority. ‘Even if its belief in its own cultural superiority was justified, numbers would tell in the long run, considering that culture is contagious, and that an ascendancy based on cultural superiority is therefore a wasting asset.’ He expressed sympathy with the dilemma of minorities: voluntary abdication in favour of a majority ‘whom one feels to be one’s inferior is a very hard alternative for human pride to accept.’[3]

“Knowing our enemies”

Within the camp of the victorious Afrikaner nationalists there were contrasting perspectives of the unexpected National Party victory in the 1948 election. Privately Eben DÁ¶nges, who as Minister for the Interior would introduce most of the apartheid laws, told a foreign journalist that for him and his colleagues the policy of apartheid was there to protect the present and next two generations against the dangers posed by the growing black and coloured population.[4] By contrast, NP leader D.F. Malan said ‘Today South Africa belongs to us once more. South Africa is our own for the first time since Union, and may God grant that it will always remain our own.’[5] By that he meant the Afrikaner nationalists’ own.

Among leaders of the African National Congress, the oldest and most prestigious black organisation, there were mixed feelings about the 1948 election result. Albert Luthuli, a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, said that with blacks little more than spectators of the political game, it was irrelevant which white party won. Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, future ANC leaders, disagreed. Mandela recounts that Tambo said: “I like this. Now we know exactly who our enemies are and where we stand.’[6]

In 1950 Hendrik Verwoerd, an ex-professor of sociology, became Minister of Native Affairs in the National Party government and he went on to serve as Prime Minister from 1958 to 1966. He would make it made it his business to tell blacks exactly where they stood.

Shortly after becoming a cabinet minister Verwoerd met with members of the defunct Natives Representative Council, which included some ANC stalwarts. He ruled out direct representation of blacks in Parliament or in the provincial councils, but offered blacks what he called the greatest measure of self-government in the urban black townships. To provide services for the townships blacks would have to be educated and trained to be suffienntly competent in many spheres.

The black leaders attending the meeting rejected the proposal, insisting on representation on all levels of government. This was a turning point in which South Africa failed to turn. Had the leaders accepted the offer the black city councils could have been used in the same way that the black trade unions were in the 1980s. They used their legalised status effectively in ways the government had never anticipated.

Verwoerd now embarked on a rigid policy of restricting black political rights to the eight black reserves, later depicted in the apartheid ideology as national homelands. These reserves in total made up 13 per cent of the land mass of South Africa. Politically linking even urban blacks to their repective homelands remained the policy until negotiations for a democracy began in the late 1980’s. The NP government had made the fatal error of excluding the urban blacks, the most advanced black stratum, of any significant representation.

Mandela, already an outstanding leader in the early 1950s, helped to steer the ANC into an activist but non-violent form of politics. It included boycotts, stay-at-homes, passive resistance and protest demonstrations. The state finally crushed the movement by charging 157 of the leaders, Mandela included, with treason. The trial, which started in 1956, dragged on for five years before all the accused were acquitted.

At the same time the cunning of history was at work. In the courts there was no segregation of the accused. The 157 accused all were seated alphabetically and had frequent opportunites for talking during breaks. Previously there was relatively little mixing on leadership level between the ANC, which was exclusively black, and the South African Communist Party, whose leaders were almost exclusively white.  Mandela had long insisted on the ANC remaining an exclusively black organisation and had kept his distance from the white communists.

The experience in court changed him. Here for the frst time he encountered whites as committed as blacks to a democratic South Africa. He remained loyal to his communist allies through the rest of his career. He indeed briefly became a communist himself.

Appealing to government

From the beginning of his career Mandela admired British political institutions, in particular the British parliament. He saw those institutions as the cornerstone of a new political order in a free South Africa. In 1960 Mandela on trial for treason proposed that the black population be allowed to elect sixty representatives in the South African Parliament, which was slightly less than a third of the total number of seats at that time. He also suggested that the measure could be reviewed after every five years.[7]

This was exactly the kind of measure Toynbee had in mind for whites if they wished to prevent a situation in the future where the ruling elite would be forced to capitulate without power and without honour. But apart from the fact that the white electorate was quite unprepared for it there was another problem. In the dominant white group there was a division between the Afrikaners, forming 55 per cent of the electorate, and the English community, which was economically and culturally dominant.

The “winner-takes-all” electoral system, which today is still used in both Britain and the United States, is unsuitable for a deeply divided society, like South Africa. It does not reward moderation but encourage the biggest ethnic group to mobilise separately and to become increasingly radical in defending its power.

In South Africa there was not only a sharp division between white and black but also between the two white communities. If Mandela’s proposal of bringing sixty representatives into parliament was implemented it would almost certainly have set up a black-English alliance that would mean the political death knell for the Afrikaners.

The killing of 70 black South Africans by the police at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960, followed by black protests in several cities and a capital flight, triggered the first serious crisis for white rule.

In April 1960 the government banned the ANC and other organisations and imprisoned numerous activists. It called a referendum on a republic in which only the whites, forming only one fifth of the population, would participate. After a yes vote the government decided to proclaim the republic on 31 May 1961.

On 20 April 1961 Mandela wrote to Verwoerd on behalf of a several black organisations, stating that his government, representating only a minority, was not entitled to take such a decision without obtaining the express consent of the African people. Blacks feared the proposed republic under a government which, in Mandela’s words, ‘was already notorious the world over for its obnoxious policies.’ The danger existed, he wrote, that the government would now ‘make even more savage attacks on the rights and living conditions of the African people.’ This situation could be averted only by the calling of a sovereign national convention representative of all South Africans to draw up a new non- racial and democratic Constitution.”[8]

Three weeks after the republic had been proclaimed, Mandela again wrote to Verwoerd. He stated that no constitution or form of government could be decided without the participation of the black people forming an absolute majority of the population. He demanded a National Convention of elected representatives of all adult men and women. The body should have sovereign powers to determine, in any way the majority of the representatives would decide, a non-racial democratic constitution.[9]

Verwoerd’s office failed to reply to Mandela’s two letters. When he stood trial later Mandela pressed Verwoerd’s secretary to admit that the failure to reply to his letters would be considered ‘scandalous’ in “any civilised country. The secretary replied that the letters remained unanswered because the tone was aggressive and discourteous. Mandela later acknowledged that “there may have been something in this.”[10] But the demand for calling a national convention was also problematic from a white point of view. The majority would be able to write the constitution.

After the ANC had been banned on 30 March 1960 Mandela along with some other leading figures decided to form an armed body, later called Umkhonto we Sizwe, to embark on a campaign of sabotage and armed struggle to force the government to the negotiating table.  

They had to face the fact that Albert Luthuli, the incumbent ANC president was firmly opposed the ANC embarking on an armed struggle. There was a meeting between Mandela and Luthuli to resolve the issue. In his published autobiography Mandela acknowledges that the outcome of his clash with Luthuli was very messy since the latter retained his commitment to non-violence. According to Mandela, Luthuli agreed that “the military body would should be a separate and independent organ, linked to the ANC and under the overall control of the ANC, but fundamentally autonomous.” Mandela goes on to state that he enlisted some members of “white Communist Party”, which had already resolved on the course of violence and had executed acts of sabotage.” [11]

The question whether it was the ANC or the SACP who made the decision to start the armed struggle, and Mandela’s role, remained dormant until Mandela’s death on 5 December 2013. Then the whole issue blew up. The South African Communist Party issued a statement in which it stated that Mandela had once beena member of the party’s central committee. At the same time, two important works by professional historians appeared. The one was by the British historian Stephen Ellis, holder of the Desmond Tutu chair in the University of Amsterdam, entitled External Mission: the ANC in exile, 1960-1990 (Jonathan Ball). The other one was by two Russian historians, Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, The Hidden Thread; Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (Jonathan Ball).

According to Ellis, the SACP conference that resolved to take up arms took place in a posh white suburb and only eight or nine of 25 delegates in attendance were black Africans.[12] Filatova and Davidson write that Mandela was present as a member of the SACP’s central committee. Using the ANC’s distinction between members of the SACP, i.e. communists, and members of the ANC proper, or nationalists, the two historians conclude there was no nationalist present when the SACP decided to embark on an armed struggle. The two historians add: ‘The fact that the armed struggle was originally a decision by the SACP, not the ANC, is confirmed by documents from the Moscow archives.’

There also appeared a study entitled “The Road to Democracy” under the chairmanship of an ANC minister. It clearly states that it was the executive of the tiny, almost exclusively white Central Committee of South African Communist Party, took the original decision to embark on the armed struggle.[13]

The controversy intensified when the Mandela Foundation released the 627 page original manuscript of Mandela’s account of his life, which was smuggled out of jail. It now appears that some very interesting passages was expurgated from the prison manuscript in producing the printed version of Mandela’s autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom (1994).

There is now little doubt that Mandela was a member of the SACP executive during the period 1960-62. During his tour through Africa in 1962, just before his imprisonment, he met several leaders of Africa states. He discovered that most of them rejected communism. When he returned to South Africa, Mandela projected himself as a nationalist. Joe Slovo, SACP leader, complained: ‘We sent Nelson off to Africa as a Communist and he came back an African nationalist.’[14]

From the early 1960s to the early 1990’s both ANC and SACP depended on Soviet Union support. In 1965-66 the ANC received $560 000 and the SACP $112 000 from this source.[15]

On Robben Island Mandela never gave an indication of communist leanings. A fellow-inmate, Neville Alexander, who frequently debated issues with him, was convinced that Mandela did not subscribe to the so-called National Democratic Revolution, the key SACP doctrine. This sets out the party’s plan to establish a socialist society under ANC rule through a two-stage revolution. In Alexander’s view the ANC’s predominantly bourgeois leadership had no intention other than serving the interests of the capitalist class.[16]

The unexpurgated prison manuscript was completed and smuggled out of prison in the mid-1970s. At that point he had distanced himself from some of the SACP members on Robben Island. The differences - which were partly personal, especially with Govan Mbeki, a hard line Stalinist - were particularly on how to deal with the Bantustans. Mandela, however, does not come across as a liberal democrat. He states that he believes in dialectical materialism and het depicted anti-communism was a sickness, contracted from going to missionary schools or listening to government propaganda. He argues that force could be used in the battle against the government, even if the black majority were against it.

The state’s security agencies from the early 1960s received intelligence that the SACP had succeeded in infiltrating the ANC and that Mandela from 1960 to 1962 was a member of its executive. The question is how did that affect the treatment of ANC or SACP aligned prisoners? Mandela himself commented on this in his unexpurgated memoirs:

“In comparison with the wave of detentions since 1963 that in 1960 was like a picnic. To the best of my knowledge and belief no individuals were then isolated, forced to give information, beaten up, tortured, crippled ad killed as has been happening since 1963. Speaking comparatively, the security police still had a number of men who carried out their duties according to the law and who resisted the temptation of abusing their powers. Apart from keeping us in confinement, withholding newspapers so as to prevent us from knowing what was happening outside, the atmosphere was generally free of the brutalities and acute tensions that characterize the subsequent detentions.”[17]

Piet Swanepoel, a senior security policeman to whom Mandela refers favourably in this context, recently stated that knowledge of the Communist influence on the ANC triggered a “greater harshness” on the part of the security officers in their effort to dispel this influence.[18] Torture of detainees and deaths in detention had become common.

Considering Mandela’s release

The second prime minister during Mandela term in jail was John Vorster, who served from 1966 to 1978. Like other NP leaders Vorster believed that Mandela was a communist and that the ANC, as well as the SACP, was a proxy of the Soviet Union. Initially the Vorster government enjoyed so much latitude that little thought was given to substantial reform or the release of Mandela and some of his colleagues from prison. The economy was booming. During the 1960s it grew at an average rate of 5,9 per cent per year.

From the mid-1970s the tide turned against the white regimes in Southern Africa.  The economy became bogged down by the sudden jump in oil prices together with a slump in commodity prices and growing demands from a much more assertive black work force.

The collapse of the dictatorship of Portugal in 1974 was the start of rapid withdrawal of Portugal from its Southern African colonies. Soviet-aligned regimes came to power in Mozambique and Angola. A South African attempt to intervene in Angola misfired badly. The Soviet government airlifted some 30 000 Cuban troops to the country. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned Vorster that due to opposition in the American Congress the Ford administration would not be able to counter further Soviet intervention in southern Africa.

In June 1976 a major uprising erupted in Soweto, near Johannesburg, and quickly spread to townships across the country. The political isolation of the white community was starkly exposed. The situation was so serious that on 8 August 1976 the Vorster cabinet had on its agenda the issue of the release of Nelson Mandela, which was by then twelve years in jail.[19] There is no record of the decision.

What would have happened if Mandela were indeed released in 1976? Neville Alexander records that in 1971 he and Mandela debated using the apartheid channels, flawed as they were.[20]Two years earlier, in 1974, Mandela had written a secret memorandum, entitled “Clear the obstacles and confront the enemy”, that was smuggled out.

In this document Mandela confronted the fact that the government of the Transkei, which was the putative homeland of most Xhosa, had opted to take the apartheid style independence in 1976. In terms of a 1971 law, Mandela who was born in the Transkei, would lose his South African citizenship.

Undeterred, Mandela wrote in his 1974 memorandum that the ANC faced an entirely new development: the independence of the Transkei, which was sure to be followed by other Bantustans. Mandela wrote: “The Transkei will have an independent legislature, judiciary and executive and may control its foreign relations” and then added:

“For the first time since conquest the people will run their own affairs. Now Africans will be able to be judges, magistrates, attorneys-general, inspectors of education, postmasters, army and police officers, and they will occupy other top positions in the civil service. Would it not be far better to consider independence as an accomplished fact and then call upon the people in these so-called free territories to help in the fight for a democratic South Africa?”[21]

If a free Mandela had pushed for this policy of recognising the Transkei’s independence the strains in the ANC may well have become too great to contain. A major split may well have occurred in the movement, putting South Africa on a quite different course than one it took between 1976 and 1990.

PW Botha’s offers to Mandela

In 1978 Vorster resigned.  He was succeed by P.W. Botha, who had transformed the South African military into a formidable military force. Botha believed South Africa was facing a so-called “total onslaught” the aim of which was to subvert and ultimately overthrow white rule. In this an important role would be played by the ANC, which Botha also considered a Soviet proxy.

Botha firmly believed that Mandela was still a communist[22]. He had, however, become receptive to the advice of National Intelligence that Mandela had become the main icon of the worldwide anti-apartheid struggle and that it was counter-productive to keep him in jail.

In 1985 Botha offered to release Mandela provided he foreswore violence as a political instrument unconditionally. This was the sixth such offer since he was imprisoned. As before Mandela refused. He did not believe that the ANC was capable of overthrowing the state but he was quite certain that eventually the government would be compelled to negotiate for the simple reason that blacks formed a growing demographic majority. Like Toynbee predicted 25 years earlier, he thought that the government would only with great reluctance embark on negotiations. He resolved to do anything possible to prod government on this way.

One way of making it easier for government to negotiate a democracy was to reduce the total number of blacks that could vote. By the early 1980s there were already 8 million out of approximately 22 million blacks who were considered citizens of so-called independent and as such disfranchised. Early in 1986 Mandela told a journalist, Benjamin Pogrund, that he was prepared to consider recognising the independence of the Bantustans. As Pogrund states, this was “an unusual and significant view contrary to that of the ANC in exile.” When Pogrund asked whether he could report this view to a cabinet member Mandela said yes.[23]

Initially Mandela also seemed flexible over a controversial issue like minority rights. Like the Bantustan option, it was abhorred by the ANC in exile, which would not budge from the first past-the-post electoral system coupled with the rule of the-winner-takes-all. Yet Mandela just after his release said he was flexible over all the fundamental issues, including minority rights.[24]

A major uprising

A major uprising broke out in 1984 and the turmoil did not subside until the government proclaimed a nation-wide State of Emergency in 1986. Thousands were detained without trial. In his ill-fated “Rubicon speech”, held on 16 August 1985, Botha rejected the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela, which had become the focus of the worldwide campaign against apartheid. He made it appear as if Mandela and his comrades in the early 1960s were motivated solely by communist convictions. There was no reference to grievances widely considered legitimate and he presented no evidence that Mandela was indeed a communist. More than anything this speech and the rejection of the demand for Mandela’s release destroyed the government’s credibility as a agent of substantial reform.

President Botha had to accept that the state was no longer able to force blacks into the institutions the government had unilaterally created. It had become necessary to talk to the leadership of the ANC, which the government’s secret polls showed enjoying the support of at least sixty percent of the population.

Mandela knew from the early 1960s that overthrowing white rule by means of insurrection was impossible and that only in negotiations could whites be persuaded to cede power and live under a democratic system in which their rights were guaranteed. To prepare himself for such negotiations he learnt Afrikaans in prison and studied Afrikaner history. He told his Afrikaner interlocutors in prison that he saw similarities between the Afrikaner struggle for freedom against overwhelming odds in the very first years of the twentieth century and the black struggle for freedom.

In 1988 Botha instructed Dr. Niel Barnard, head of the National Intelligence Service, assisted by two other senior civil servants, to discuss the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Forty-eight such meetings took place. Barnard reported back to Botha after each session.

When Barnard’s team raised the issue of Mandela’s alleged sympathy for communism and his refusal to break with the Communist Party, Mandela replied that while in his youth he had found aspects of communism attractive, he was not a communist. Yet he refused to break with the SA Communist Party, the ANC’s main ally: ‘If I desert them now, who have been in the struggle with me all these years, what sort of ally would I be to you or to the government?’ He answered his own question: ‘[People] would say that Mandela is a man who turns the way the wind blows; he is not to be trusted.’[25] It was a shrewd answer that was difficult to counter.[26]

The officials also explored other issues. Was the ANC genuinely interested in a peaceful settlement? Mandela made it clear that majority rule was non-negotiable, but added that the new system had to be balanced and that it had to ensure white domination would not be replaced by black domination. ‘Minorities have a legitimate interest in security,’ he said.[27]

Mandela kept pressing for a meeting with the president and Botha finally agreed.  The meeting finally took place on 5 June 1989 in the president’s office Prior to the meeting Mandela wrote to Botha that one of the key points in future negotiations would be ‘the [ANC] demand for majority rule in a unitary state and the concern of white South Africa over this demand, as well as the insistence on structural guarantees that majority rule will not mean the domination of the white minority by blacks ”¦ The most crucial task which will face the government and the ANC will be to reconcile these two positions. Such reconciliation will be achieved only if both parties are willing to compromise.’[28]

On 5 July 1989 the meeting between Botha and Mandela took place in the president’s office. Botha had suffered a stroke a few months earlier. To all accounts he was no longer the same man as before. By meeting Mandela, Botha clearly wanted to signal to his cabinet that he was still in charge.

In his autobiography Mandela wrote about the meeting with Botha: “He completely disarmed me, He was unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly.” When I interviewed Mandela early in 1992 he told that a stranger would not be able to tell who the prisoner and who the president was. “We met as equals”, he recounted.[29]

Mandela told me, along with several other people, that one the greatest disappointments in his life was having to negotiate with De Klerk rather than Botha. Mandela after 1994 continued to speak highly of Botha, while frequently criticising De Klerk, sometimes unfairly. The main reason was the Mandela and De Klerk were competitors for electoral support and the international limelight.

Another reason was the difference in age. Mandela and Botha were of the same age while De Klerk was nearly twenty years younger. As Minister of Defence before he became leader, Botha embodied the military’s toughness and discipline. De Klerk, by contrast, could easily be mistaken for a professor of law, which he nearly became, or modern day bureaucrat.  

We shall never know all that was said at the meeting between Botha and Mandela because Barnard gave orders that the tapes of the meeting had to be destroyed. Botha was furious when he discovered it but it was clearly the sensible thing to do because Mandela had not been informed that the meeting was taped. Barnard’s account of the meeting based on his notes showed that the meeting was very cordial and that no substantial issue was discussed, except the release of one of Mandela’s fellow-prisoners. [30]

Botha did not discard his original views about the armed insurrection that Mandela had plotted in 1960. Interviewed in 1995, he said that Mandela “was led into this affair by the communists and international forces.”  He seemed to suggest Mandela was manipulated by these forces. He told the interviewer that he had warned Mandela against the dangers of international Marxism and Communism. [31]

It would be unwise to describe Botha’s musings as those of an anachronistic Cold War warrior. A shrewd observer like Niel Barnard, head of National Intelligence, stated earlier this year: “Mandela totally underestimated the influence of the SACP, and, as Barnard remarks “they were cunning enough to wait till his disappearance before they tightened their iron grip.”[32]  The SACP currently enjoys the kind of influence in cabinet it hey could only dream about before 2007 but the quality of leadership is far inferior to what it was under Joe Slovo. It has become financially dependent on Cosatu. R.W. Johnson calls the SACP leadership “a predatory elite which rules and despoils South Africa.” [33]

The Institute of Race Relations, the oldest and most respectable liberal think tank in South Africa, published its finding that 40 per cent of the cabinet members of the South African Communist Party. No cabinet member questioned the report. Recently the executive director of the institute published a column under the title “So word SA tree vir tree na sosialisme gelei.” (How South Africa is being led step by step to socialism”).[34]

The support for socialism in ANC ranks is not strange.  Black South Africans were the last substantial community in the world to receive their freedom, the Soviet Union was long the only ANC backer, and communists were the only ANC allies in South Africa when the struggle against white supremacy entered a new phase in the 1950s. At this stage the government is in a serious bind. An influential economist sums up the situation well. “The government is in a cleft between trying to pursue market-friendly policies on the one hand and appeasing socialist and leftwing elements on the other, who see the private sector as the enemy.”[35]

De Klerk’s abandonment of power

In August 1989 the National Party won the general election and De Klerk was elected as president. Two months later, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. De Klerk later wrote that he immediately considered it as golden opportunity to negotiate what he considered a balanced settlement with the ANC. He calculated that without the substantial Soviet support that the ANC had enjoyed since the early 1960s the ANC would find itself off balance for a long while and would be compelled to modify significantly its demand for majority rule.

When he first met Mandela in December 1989 De Klerk observed that the inclusion of group rights in  a new constitution would ease the concern of minorities over majority rule. But it was a new ball game and Mandela’s stand was now much tougher. He told De Klerk that the ANC had not fought apartheid for 75 years to accept a disguised form of it.[36] Mandela knew that both power sharing and minority or group rights were anathema to the ANC in exile and he would not concede group rights easily.

When De Klerk set out to negotiate he did not intend to drop his insistence on group rights. Robin Renwick, British Ambassador to South Africa, who often met De Klerk portrayed his stance between early 1990 and mid-1992 as follows: “He talked about some form of power-sharing, and was, he said, in a hurry in his search for a solution. The ship he had launched would never be turned around, but he insisted that he was not about to commit suicide.” De Klerk also dismissed the idea that individual rights enshrined in a constitution provided sufficient protection. [37]

Protests again flared up and the country was soon in an acute state of instability resulting in a higher death toll than in the 1980s. In his dual role of presiding over the transition and leading the National Party in the negotiations De Klerk had put himself in a very difficult position. During the 1980s he resented the way in which he and some other ministers had been side lined in the discussions about the state’s response to uprising. He told Dr. Niel Barnard, chief of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) “I intend to restore civilian government in its full glory”. He acted as if it could be done immediately.

De Klerk did not seem to rely on the assessments and advice of the heads of the security services and intelligence agencies. Barnard believes that De Klerk thought he had enough political acumen to handle everything personally. That was a great judgement of error.” In 2007 General Chris Thirion, former Deputy Head of Military Intelligence, wrote in an open letter to De Klerk. “If I think of De Klerk. I think of a president who did not trust his security forces.” [38]

Mandela’s persistent allegations that government forces were responsible for most of the violence is not born out by the exhaustive study of Anthea Jeffery and the court records on which she based it.[39]There was some involvement by elements of the security forces but the ANC, together with Inkatha, a primarily Zulu organisation, were responsible for most of the over 20 000 deaths that occurred in the violence between 1984 and 1994.

In March 1992 the De Klerk government held a referendum among white voters on whether the negotiations should continue. It exhorted voters to vote yes if they rejected the ANC’s demand for majority rule. Yet six months later this was exactly what it accepted. 

In May 1992 the ANC walked out of the negotiations and embarked on a programme of extensive mass action. When De Klerk and Mandela met again in September1992 Mandela secured virtually all the ANC’s objectives. It agreed that the final constitution would be drafted by a body elected on universal franchise, which the ANC was sure to dominate.

Apart from the requirement to recognise some basic human rights, there were some other minor checks in what basically constituted a system of majority rule. One was the need to adhere to some vaguely phrased principles formulated by an unelected body that would draft an interim constitution. The other was substitution of parliamentary sovereignty with constitutional sovereignty.

But even the constitutional protection was limited because the parliamentary majority would have the final say in the appointment of judges to the Judicial Services Committee, which would make recommendations to the executive. At a last count, the ANC-aligned members were double those of non-ANC members.

De Klerk tried to get Mandela to agree to a system of shared decision-making in a government of national unity that would be introduced for a minimum of five years, but he firmly rejected it. He said that the representatives of minority parties in the cabinet would be consulted during the first five years but that the majority would have the final say.

There was also the matter of the NP’s promises to the white voters. In the 1989 election the NP leadership had promised that it would seek the voters’ endorsement for any deal that deviated radically from the NP’s 1989 election platform in. It promised to bring about an inclusive democracy in which “groups” would be recognized as the basic components of the system. There would be power-sharing among them with no group dominating another, and self-determination for each group in its own affairs.

De Klerk also promised a referendum. In March 1990 he pledged: ‘After the completion of the negotiations the constitutional proposals would be tested in a constitutional manner among the electorate. And only with their support would a constitutional dispensation be introduced.’[40] In the white referendum of March 1992 voters were only asked to endorse the negotiating process, but in the campaign NP speakers insisted that a yes vote represented a rejection of majority rule. In striking contrast a referendum was held in Northern Ireland in 1998 only after the constitution had been negotiated.

A rightwing challenge

The security forces were baffled by De Klerk’s moves and was ready to re-establish control. But steeped in the tradition of military subordination to the authority of an elected government, the military did not resist the political leadership. The major unknown factor was an ex-Chief of the Defence Force, General Constand Viljoen, who was convinced that the ANC was still pursuing a revolutionary agenda and that De Klerk had caved in to their demands.

Viljoen planned to disrupt the elections, have De Klerk removed as leader and restart the negotiations.  Some believed that he could raise fifty thousand men from the ACF and also some Defence Force units.[41] In a briefing, General George Meiring, Chief of the Defence Force, warned the government and the ANC of the ghastly consequences of Viljoen’s opposing the election. To dissuade Viljoen, for whom he said he had ‘the highest regard’, Meiring had several meetings with him. At one of them Viljoen said: ‘You and I and our men can take this country in an afternoon,’ to which Meiring replied. ‘Yes, that is so, but what do we do the morning after the coup?’ The white-black demographic balance, the internal and foreign pressures, and all the intractable problems would still be there.[42]

Although De Klerk and Viljoen shared a conservative political outlook for most of their respective careers, they had strongly opposed each other during the negotiations. De Klerk rejected Viljoen’s demand for a carving out a volkstaat (ethnic state) for the Afrikaners within the boundaries of the state, while Viljoen believed De Klerk had sold out.

It was Mandela who grasped the need to engage Viljoen and to make a symbolic concession to him and his right wing followers. It would take the form of an article in the constitution granting self-determination to a cultural group.  Viljoen formed a party, the Freedom Front, that won close to a half million votes in the first election. When Parliament met for the first time in a free South Africa Mandela broke ranks in the procession to greet Viljoen and to tell him how glad he was that they had found each other. Recently Viljoen told his biographer that he is sad that Mandela did not serve more than one term. If he did Afrikaners might be better off today.[43]

Power and regime change

History is in many ways an account and interpretation of power -- how it is won and lost. Yet a good grasp of the basic qualities of power remain elusive. Leo Tolstoy remarked in the final chapter of his novel War and Peace: “The new history is like a deaf man replying to questions which nobody puts to him.” The “primary question” Tolstoy went on, is: “What is the power that moves the destinies of peoples?” He doubted whether “this power, which different historians understand in different ways”, was in fact “so completely familiar to everyone”.

History should be an antidote to the belief that superior political or military power determines the outcome of conflicts. In an article that appeared in the 21 November 2013 issue of the New York Review of BooksFreeman Dyson, a renowned physicist, tells the story of a study in the early 1970s about how to end the war the United States was fighting in Vietnam. The study was commissioned by the RAND Corporation whose experts considered themselves the brains of the US military establishment.

Working separately, two groups, one consisting of two economists and the other of several historians, reached completely different conclusions. The economists concluded that in a struggle to put down an insurgency what matters is not a sympathetic understanding of their struggle ‘but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or the group is concerned with and how they are calculated’. To paraphrase: if the costs of an uprising become too high for insurgents and an oppressive regime will prevail.[44]  As Malcolm Gladwell remarks in his recent book David and Goliath the giant is sometimes slayed by the seeming weak upstart.

A group of historians who worked on the RAND Corporation’s project came up with a completely different answer. They looked at numerous cases of insurgency and asymmetrical wars, particularly the French colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam, and the British colonial wars in Africa and Malaysia. In a study of six volumes they concluded that most of the wars lasted five to seven years and ended when one side lost the willpower to keep on fighting. This was a major insight but it was lost to the world. To this day the Army has suppressed the historians’ report.

By the end of the 1980s the South African government was not desperate to start negotiations. It was rather the Fall of the Berlin Wall that provided the incentive for De Klerk attempting to get an agreement with the ANC while main its main source of financial support, the Soviet Union, was in retreat. The security forces were loyal and willing to continue to defend the state. The business elite was concerned but its call for regime change was faint.

The economy was stagnating as a result of sanctions but there was no real fiscal crisis Derek Keys, the Managing Director of General Mining who went on to serve as the last NP Minister of Finance, stated in 2010: “From a financial point of view, South Africa did not have to negotiate in 1990, but conditions were tightening ”¦ [The] situation was serious but it is not as if we had fallen off the precipice. The economy could go on.[45]’ Fifteen years earlier Barend du Plessis, who was replaced by Keys, had made the same assessment.

Chris Heunis, Botha’s Minister for Constitutional Affairs until 1989, offered this sober assessment: Sanctions had made it necessary for the government to negotiate but “there was no need to negotiate only about the hand-over of power.”[46] Niel Barnard, the only person that saw both Botha and Mandela on a regular basis in the late eighties, believes that Botha would not have accepted majority rule, but would have said to Mandela: “Let’s govern together for ten years and let’s see how it goes.” Barnard thinks there was a good chance that Mandela would have accepted it. [47]

After De Klerk had abandoned his faith in apartheid in the late 1980s he made morality the key requirement of a negotiated settlement. In an interview I had with him two months after his momentous speech on 2 February he said that hanging on to power would be immoral.[48] In a television program, broadcast in 2002, he agreed with Van Zyl Slabbert, ex-leader of the liberal opposition, that he could have been in power for at least ten more years. His main problem with that was that “it would have been “devoid of morality.”[49]

P.W. Botha did not share this view of morality and it is extremely doubtful that a clear majority of the white electorate would have given De Klerk and his party a yes vote in the referendum of March 1992 if it had known that majority rule would be the outcome of the negotiations. 

Why did the Afrikaner community nonetheless go along with the deal struck between the ANC and the government in September 1992? One answer would be that after the white referendum the tie between the government and its traditional electorate was cut. There was nothing any white group of voters could do to stop the process.

In his doctoral dissertation, completed in 1999, the political analyst and pollster Lawrence Schlemmer looked at the polls of the preceding thirty years. He concluded that Afrikaners, much more than white English-speakers, had begun to stress their religious identification in preference to a class or ethnic identification. To be living an upright moral life had come to be seen as more important than to serve the Afrikaner community.[50]

The Western world’s moral sanctions, much more than economic sanctions, had sapped the will to cling to power of many in the white community. Sooner or later, Toynbee argued, ruling minorities had to accept the status of ‘an unprivileged minority’ among a majority they once considered culturally inferior.


For more than fifty years, from his speeches in the dock in the Treason Trial (1956-1961) and his letters to Hendrik Verwoerd (1961 to his presidency (1994 to 1995) Mandela cast a huge shadow over white politics. Very much along the lines Arnold Toynbee predicted in 1959, Mandela was convinced that growing black numbers, which doubled between 1946 and 1977 and doubled again between 1970 and 1996, would fatally undermine white supremacy. Yet he also knew that white fears of black power were formidable.

To break the logjam Mandela made compromise proposals during the mid-1970s that would have severely strained ANC unity. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the Afrikaner leaders were foolish to waste these opportunities, partly because they believed he was still a communist. During the all-party negotiations (1991-1993) Mandela compromised by dropping the ANC demand for nationalisation but he remained firm on majority rule.

The NP under De Klerk started the negotiations well, but abandoned most of their political demands in September 1992 in the hope of securing a stable coalition with the ANC. Some observers argue the negotiated settlement boils down to blacks winning political power and whites retaining their property, but, as recent developments show, retaining property in the absence of political power will be no easy task. Mandela served only one term as president. It is possible that in a second term he could have helped to consolidate a liberal democracy by rejecting the growing assault of property rights without which a vibrant democracy is impossible. But Mandela came too late and went too soon.


[1] Hermann Giliomee and Lawrence Schlemmer, From Apartheid to Nation-building (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1989), p.156.

[2] Arnold Toynbee, ‘History’s Warning to Africa’, Optima, 9, 2, 1959, pp. 56-59.

[3] Toynbee, ‘History’s Warning to Africa’, pp. 55-56.

[4] John Hatch, The Dilemma of South Africa (London: Dennis Dobson, 1953), p. 93.

[5] J. Robertson, Liberalism in South Africa, 1948-1963  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. x.

[6] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (MacDonald/Purnell, 1994), p.105.

[7] Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 68-70.

[8], Letter Nelson Mandela to Hendrik Verwoerd, 20 April 1961.

[9], Nelson Mandela to Hendrik Verwoerd, 26 June 1961.

[10] Lodge, Mandela, pp.104-05.

[11] Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p.260.

[12] Ellis, External Mission, pp.16-17; Rian Malan, “The Real Story of Nelson Mandela and the Communists”, The Spectator blogs 10 December 2013.

[13] Cited by Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, p.299.

[14] Ellis, External Mission, p.33.

[15] R.W. Johnson, The First Man, The Last Nation (Joannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2004), p. 109.

[16] Neville Alexander,  (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, pp.46=49.An Ordinary Country

[17], manuscript of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, p.302/

[18] Interview of Piet Swanepoel by author 29 January 2o14,

[19] Email message from Jamie Miller, 7 February 2015.

[20] Alexander, An Ordinary Country, p. 47.

[21]  “Nelson Mandela and the Bantustans”, 14 May 2012 re-publication of Nelson Mandela, “Clear the obstacles and confront the enemy”, ca 1974.

[22] Email message form Neil Barnard, 26 February 2015.

[23] Letter from Benjamin Pogrund to editor, Mail & Guardian , 13 February 2015.

[24] Weekly Mail, 16 February 1990.

[25] Interview with Mike Louw by Patti Waldmeir, 29 May 1995, manuscripts collection, University of Stellenbosch.

[26] For an account of these talks see Niel Barnard, Geheime Rewolusie: Geheime van `n Spioenbaas(Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2015), pp.176-84.

[27] Niel Barnard, ‘NIS wou sonder middelman na ANC gaan’, Die Burger, 18 February 1992.

[28] Hassen Ebrahim, The Soul of a Nation: Constitution-making in South Africa (Cape town:Oxford University Press. 1998), p.447.

[29] Interview with Nelson Mandela by author, 1 March, 1992.

[30] Barnard, Geheime Rewolusie, pp. 215 -20.

[31] Nelson Mandela interviewed by Patti Waldmeir, 1 March 1995

[32] Email-message from Niel Barnard to author, 26 February 2015.

[33] R.W. Johnson, How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2015) pp. 72-73.

[34] Rapport, 29 March 2015.

[35] Azar Jammine quoted in “Business Times”, Sunday Times, 10 May 2015.

[36] Patti Waldmeir, Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of a New South Africa (New York: Norton and Co., 1997), p. 148.

[37] Robin Renwick, Mission to South Africa: Diary of Revolution (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2015), p.127.

[38] Hermann Giliomee, The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), p.368.

[39] Anthea Jeffery, People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, w2009).

[40] Die Burger, 31 March 1990.

[41] Johann van Rooyen, Hard RightThe new white power in South Africa (London: I.B. Tauris 1994) David Welsh, 'Rightwing terrorism in South Africa', Terrorism and Political violence, 7,1 (1995), pp. 239-64.

[42] Interview of author with George Meiring, 11 November 2002.

[43] Dennis Cruywagen, Brothers in War and Peace: Constand and Braam Viljoen and the Birth of a New South Africa ((Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2014), pp.pp.224-25.

[44] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (London:Allen Lane, 2013), pp.197-213.

[45]  Interview of author with  Derek Keys, & October 2010.

[46] Interview of author with Chris Heunis, 15 December 2002

[47]  Interview of author with Niel Barnard, 25 February 2015

[48] Interview of author with F.W. de Klerk,

[49] Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Charlottesville: Virginia University Press, 2003), p.635.

[50]  Lawrence Schlemmer, Factors in the persistence or decline of Ethnic Group mobilisation: A conceptual Review and Case Study of Cultural Group Responses among Afrikaners in Post-Apartheid South Africa”.

doctoral dissertation, University of Cape Town, 1999.